How to Navigate Grief With Emotional Agility

When you’re grieving, it can be difficult to muster the energy to do simple, everyday tasks. At times, your mind may be racing, consumed with emotions, or completely blank. 

Grief is always complex, and according to emotional agility expert Susan David, “…rigidity in the face of complexity is toxic.” The cultural expectation that we remain “strong” or stoic is unrealistic when it comes to grief; instead, we should invite and tend to the full range of our emotions. Today we’ll discuss how developing “emotional agility” can support us as we navigate grief. 

Practicing emotional agility

Emotional agility is the ability to experience and express a range of emotions, without being so overwhelmed that you can no longer go about the tasks of everyday life. While I focus on helping doctors do this on the job, emotional agility can also be extremely helpful when you’re experiencing grief in a personal context. These are important skills for each of us to cultivate.

To practice emotional agility, first notice the feelings you’re having without trying to control them. Simply allow yourself to feel the range of emotions inside you and don’t judge your thoughts—instead, have complete compassion for yourself, remembering that experiencing emotions is a positive sign of your humanity. Once you’re more aware of your emotional state, you may find it easier to continue to resume healthy habits, go to work, and handle responsibilities—grief will still permeate your experiences, but with awareness and self-compassion, these complex and lingering feelings are likely to feel more manageable. 

Grieving must be experienced. Don’t shove anything away, and you don’t need to try to put on a brave face.

Emotional agility is greatly supported by practicing present moment awareness—this means letting go of both regrets about the past and thoughts about the future (i.e. worry or anxiety), connecting with our five senses, and “arriving” in the present moment.

Allowing yourself to be vulnerable is also key. In my years as a neurosurgeon and human being, suffering heartbreak along with my patients and facing enormous personal losses, I learned that you must come to terms with the emotions that come up: grieving must be experienced or it will take an insidious toll on your life over time. 

Don’t shove anything away; instead of putting on a brave face, find the courage to acknowledge and share your emotions as you go about daily life. You’ll likely experience relief as bottled-up energy is allowed to flow, and you’ll also be helping the people around you: sharing emotions makes for deeper, more authentic connections with others. And that is the most important part of life—we are one another’s most fundamental source of strength, especially in the most difficult of times. Experiencing emotional agility allows you to recognize the beauty as well as the fragility of life and how these are inextricably linked.

Remaining grounded in the present moment is a key to being able to flex between often widely ranging emotions. This way, I can have an intimate and emotional conversation with a patient one moment, then take that person to the operating room and perform a complex brain surgery, bringing my best self to each situation.  

Feelings of failure and powerlessness

As a society, we often interpret death or loss as failure. If we instead acknowledge that these changes are a natural and absolutely inevitable part of life, it allows us to understand we have not failed and to thereby heal more fully after loss. 

It is also common to feel powerless in times of mourning. Loss makes us recognize our true limitations: we can’t bring the loved one back or cure our own grief (or that of friends and family). But we can console one another by being as honest and empathetic as possible. Admitting our limitations can thus be a relief and go a long way in helping us cope.

Is it necessary to go through the 5 stages of grief?

No, most professionals do not consider it necessary or even normal to go through all 5 stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance). Nor should you expect to experience these feelings in any particular order or on a strict time frame. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross created this theory in 1969 based on her clinical studies of patients with terminal illness, but this doesn’t mean that this framework will apply to every person or every loss—and Kübler-Ross never intended them to be.

How long does grieving usually last?

Each loss is singular, and thus the time it takes you to feel you are “beyond” the grief may be months or even years. A 2022 update to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) (used by psychiatrists) added prolonged grief disorder to the list of potential diagnoses, highlighting the variability and nuance of bereavement, and the importance of acknowledging and offering treatment to those patients who suffer long-term.

How do different people deal with grief?

In addition to cultivating self-acceptance by practicing emotional agility, the most basic and essential steps to take when you are grieving include:

  • Seek out support from loved ones, family, friends, your spiritual community, and/or a mental health professional
  • Practice self-care, including eating healthy meals, getting outside, exercising, meditation, and giving yourself enough quality sleep to feel rested
  • Find solace in shared stories, including reading books on grief written by others
  • Devote time to creative activities that allow you to express and process your emotions without judgment; this can take the form of writing, art, or any hobby that allows you to find relief in a state of creative flow.

Where can someone find professional grief support?

To find a licensed mental health professional to support you in your grieving process, consider some of the following resources:

  • Call your health insurance provider (or use their online tools) to find a list of therapists who are in your insurance network
  • Call the 24/7 SAMHSA hotline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) for treatment referral
  • Find a psychologist from the American Psychological Association
  • Find a psychiatrist via the American Psychiatric Association
  • Ask a friend or loved one for a recommendation
  • Contact Veterans Affairs for help if you are a veteran
  • Try virtual therapy on a platform like Better Help or Talkspace

Therapy or grief counseling can be especially helpful for those experiencing complicated or traumatic grief. Remember to also seek out social support, and consider engaging with a spiritual community. It takes time to heal, but by experiencing our emotions and getting the support we need, grief can connect us with one another.

In a moment of crisis, you may also call the 24/7 suicide and crisis help line, available by dialing 988 in the U.S.

About Dr. Joseph Stern

Dr. Joseph “Jody” Stern is a board certified neurosurgeon and author of Grief Connects Us: A Neurosurgeon’s Lessons on Love, Loss, and Compassion, with a foreword by Dr. Sanjay Gupta. In 2015, Dr. Stern lost his sister to a nearly year-long battle with leukemia; the experience showed him the need to integrate compassion and empathy into the practice of medicine. He has since become committed to deepening and humanizing the doctor-patient relationship.

Listen to Dr. Stern’s podcast appearances and read articles he has published online here. Stay connected and join the conversation by signing up for Dr. Stern’s newsletter or following him on LinkedIn and other social media platforms.

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